Anhydrous Wit

Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The High Cost of Living (and Dying)

While making arrangements for my father’s funeral, I was shocked by the wide range of prices charged for various items or services. Note I said the range, not the prices themselves. Funerals are not an inexpensive process. Keep in mind that there might be unscrupulous morticians in this country, but our particular funeral director was gracious and did not try to push us to make any unnecessary, expensive decisions.

Funeral service packages at this mortuary range from $2,045 for "immediate burial or entombment without ceremony" to $3,995 for "funeral service package with two services in our chapel or another location with visitation including two limousines". These packages include all handling and transportation services, use of the funeral home facilities, paperwork, embalming, and dressing. However, the handling services, the limousines/hearse, and the memorial services can be purchased separately. (For the sake of time, I chose not to do the math to see if we could get what we wanted for cheaper than the package rate. Think, if you will, that we got the Value Meal of burger, fries, and soft drink for less than the sum of those individual items.)

Cremation packages are a completely separate category. $1,210 will get you "direct cremation with no ceremony or services with container provided by purchaser" up to $3,655 for "service at another facility and public visitation followed by cremation". For my dad, we chose the "visitation at the mortuary followed by cremation" at $3,025.

Other items, naturally, are a la carte. (Here’s where it really gets expensive.) Memorial books (for guests’ signatures) can be $35 to $160 -- or they could be included in a package with prayer cards and thank you notes for $95 to $265. If you want a photo on the prayer cards, forget about the basic $50 for a set of 150 cards. You’ll need to put up $90 for a black and white photo or $175 for a color one. Video tributes are similarly priced. Crucifixes ($20 - $50) and rosaries ("from $9.95") are available for Roman Catholics, as are $125 shrouds for Jews. My dad’s flag was included, along with a clear, plastic, zippered case, but we could have upgraded to a wooden one for $95. Other, basic services are separate, as well: musician ("$100 or more"), clergy ("$200 to $300 or more"), even the "cemetery equipment (lowering device)" for $200.

Let’s move on to various containers. (You didn’t forget those, did you?) Funeral caskets (30 available) range from $995 for a "Belvedere Olive Hammertex lightweight steel" or a "Suntan cloth covered fiberboard" all the way up to $9,800 for either "ebony/gold brushed solid 48 ounce bronze" or "Parliament polished mahogany". (The five Orthodox Jewish caskets are $995 - $2,790.) Here’s where someone could really soak you. My mom and I, however, looked at each other and thought, "You want me to spend almost $10,000 on a box that will be used once and buried in the ground, never to be seen again?"

Wait. There’s more.

Grave liners ($395 or $595) and vaults ($625 - $10,825) are extra. You read that right; you can spend more on a vault, which is put in the ground and never seen, than on a casket, which is presumably seen at least once.

I feel the need to include the disclaimer that these items are usually not required by law, but "many cemeteries require that you have such a container so that the grave will not sink in". Okay, I’ll go for that. However, the next page in the price booklet lists several reasons (such as protection from water and from the weight of soil itself) why you might want to purchase one of these items. With all due respect to my father, I think that the statement, "A vault offers peace of mind by providing a safe, dry environment for the casket," won’t do much for his peace of mind -- and my mind will be at peace knowing that I didn’t waste my money on this.

Actually, all of these prices aren’t relevant to my dad’s situation, as we had him cremated. Cremation caskets (a dozen from which to choose) are an entirely different matter. They range from $85 for a plain "cardboard box with no lining" (Who would have thought a cardboard box would cost that much?) to $4,190 for "Clarion solid maple". Indeed, you can pay more for a box that will be burned up than one that will be buried. Go figure. We settled on the "Union cloth covered cardboard" (a medium-dark gray, which went nicely with the flag), two steps up from the cardboard box, for $395. In case anyone wants to point out the folly of buying a container to be burned, you can opt for a "hardwood ceremonial casket" (not burned) with a removable liner (burned). However, you still pay $395 for the liner, plus you have to rent the casket for $795. We could have wasted $800 right there.

Now then, what do you do with the cremains? There are 34 container choices at this point (not including the 10 miniature "keepsake urns" which resemble the full-size one, nor the 3 "urn vaults"). The "dark gray laminate" (plastic) container is $95, but for just $30 more, you could get one in "wood grain". Even biodegradable ones ("Unity heart" or "Embrace green") are more expensive. The top of the line is the "In Peace sculptured stainless steel" for $1,565. Yes, even the urns can cost more than the caskets. My mother preferred the simple, classic look of the "Lenox pewter" (engraved with my father’s name and dates of birth and death), and at $460, it is in the lowest third of the price range. (Hers, when the time comes, will be the same style.) Although we intend to bury the urn, all of the choices on display were suitable for setting in a place of honor. (My father’s is, at the moment, on the floor near his La-Z-Boy in the family room.)

This post wasn’t intended to be an object lesson for you, but it would be prudent for you to make your wishes known to your loved ones so they don’t go overboard when grieving for you (not to mention that payment will be required long before any life insurance benefits are given to your surviving family or friends). Many mortuaries, including this one, offer pre-payment of materials and services, so you can even select your means of disposition yourself, without worrying about inflation or additional charges when your time comes (which won’t be for many years, I hope!).

Monday, November 20, 2006

I Miss Autumn

Yes, I know there’s another month of the season left. I’m not saying that I regret the passing of it. I mean that I don’t seem to experience it.

The first reason is that, in case I haven’t mentioned this before, I firmly believe that we have only two seasons in southern New Mexico: Summer and Not-summer. Summer is distinguished by the blazing heat, and Not-summer is the rest of the year. (I can’t exactly claim that it’s cold in what most people call Winter; it’s just not hot here.)

The second reason is football season. (Wabbit season! Duck season!) Because of NMSU’s football games and the Tournament of Bands competition and Homecoming and the high school rivalry game (and, this year, my dad’s death) I miss my weekend exercise walks because I have to be at work (or out of town). As such, there is a period of at least a month that I don’t get to walk. One weekend, I’m out in shorts and a T-shirt, and the next thing I know, I have to put on sweats, a ski hat, and gloves. What happened to the gradual cool-down in between?

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Land of the Fee

My gym informed me today that it will start charging $1.50 extra each time I write them a check for my monthly membership and $10.00 if the check is more than five days after the due date. I overheard a bit of the explanation an employee gave to another member. Apparently, the gym owner is bothered by the amount of time his administrative assistants spend on processing payments (i.e. entering them onto a deposit slip and taking them to the bank). Naturally, he hopes that the fee will encourage us to allow him a monthly, automatic withdrawal from our checking accounts.

I don’t play that game. First, I will be the only person to take money from my account, and only I will determine when. Second, I don’t trust computers, and especially not hackers. Third, if I forget to log the automatic withdrawal in my check register, I’ll have less money than I think I have.

What I’d really like to know is, what happens if this scheme works? Say that the majority of members opt for the automatic withdrawal. Ergo, there will be fewer checks to log onto deposit slips and take to the bank. Will the owner cease with the $1.50 surcharge if fewer checks need to be processed? Somehow, I think not. I will be charged more money for his employees to do the same job they have been doing for over two years, except that it will be easier for them because fewer checks have to be handled.

My bank (a national conglomerate) works the same way. Call me distrusting, but I want to have my cancelled checks returned to me, as proof that my payments were accepted. Several years ago, my bank started charging me for this "extra" service, that they (and banks throughout the country) had been doing for their customers long before I was born. (As a bonus, I also have to pay state sales tax on this surcharge, because services are taxable.) Last year, the bank announced that it decided that it cost too much money to pay someone to stuff my checks into the same envelope as my statement, and they would send "photocopies" of the checks. (This causes the "cancelled check fee" to be erroneously named.) The photocopies add a page (double-sided) to my statement, which is already bloated at three pages. They could save money by reformatting their statements to fit on one, double-sided page and giving me my original checks back. Plus, the postage would still be within the 39-cent limit, as I don’t write many checks each month.

As you expect, I have a problem with the bank’s policy. First, the copies are shrunk to fit six to a page, which makes them difficult to read. Second, they are of a poor resolution, which makes them (again) difficult to read. (Try sending a copy of a copy to someone as proof that you paid.) Third, they don’t copy the backs of the checks, which is where the endorsements are stamped. What proof do I have that the check was accepted? For all the good it does me, I could just write up a check, set the copier to shrink, and send in a fuzzy, small photocopy to the recipient as proof that I paid. Meanwhile, my money actually never would have left the account. (I wonder how long I could get away with this before being arrested for fraud?) Fourth, does it take any more time to stuff checks into an envelope, rather than stand at a copier, make two-sided copies, and stuff the copies into the envelope instead (not to mention shredding -- I hope! -- my cancelled checks)?

In both of these examples, I am paying a company more money for its employees to perform less work. Whatever happened to customer service?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Memorial Card

In Memory Of
Dennis Woywood

Date of Birth
Wednesday, March 7, 1934
Date of Death
Monday, October 30, 2006

Saturday, November 4, 2006
2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.

Sunset Memorial Park
Albuquerque, New Mexico


Who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who leaves the world better than he found it;
Who looked for the best in others, and gave the best he had.


Dennis J. Woywood, formerly of Elmhurst, IL and Cherry Hill, NJ, died in Albuquerque, NM on October 30, 2006, at the age of 72. He is survived by Gena Lou (nee Dove), his wife of 51 years, and sons Warren, Derek, and Brett.

Valedictorian of his class at Milwaukee School of Engineering, he received his master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and was employed in the Government, Broadcast, and Defense divisions of RCA in New Jersey for 27 years before moving to Albuquerque in 1988. He worked for L&M Technologies and volunteered for Quality New Mexico and as a Bernalillo County Master Gardener.

Friends may visit on Saturday, November 4, 2006 from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m. at French Mortuary, 7121 Wyoming Blvd., NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, (505) 823-9400. Cremation and interment will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Dennis' name to charities of the donors' choice.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da

Life goes on.

My father, Dennis Joseph Woywood, died on Monday, October 30, 2006. He was 72 years old (born Dennis Joseph Wojewodka on March 7, 1934). The sun still rises and sets. Election day still came. I’m still here. Life goes on.

He was given four to six months when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We thought he’d be here for Christmas, and maybe his birthday in early March. He made it four weeks, to his 51st wedding anniversary (and two days). Christmas will still come. March will still come. Life goes on.

When I found out he had cancer, I felt guilty about going ahead with the plans for my Halloween party. Life goes on.

Boss has been very generous with my leave time. Plus, it turns out that a visit to a potential account can be adjusted around a familial commitment. I will be with my mother in Albuquerque, just a two hour drive from the account, so I am conveniently close (in western, wide-open spaces terms). Most of November, I’ll be with her instead of at the office. Still, work goes on.

I haven’t cried much, and I don’t think my mom has at all. I think she is distracting herself with "busy work" so she won’t think about it. We’re coping as we know how. Does this make us bad people?

They put a flag on my dad’s casket because he served in the army for two years (in Germany, not Korea) in the early 1950's. I thought only military personnel killed in action were honored with those flags. Now we have a large flag that we don’t have a use for, but I’d feel guilty about giving it away.

He will be cremated, and we’ll take his "cremains" to my mother’s family’s cemetery in Sioux City, Iowa. My mom selected a nice, pewter urn, which will be engraved with his name and dates of birth and death. (She wants one for herself, too.) I guess that will look nicer around the house until we can take him there. My maternal grandfather’s ashes were placed in what looked like a Lenell’s cookie tin, and we kept him in the closet until he was buried. I don’t know yet when we’ll do it, nor if we’ll drive or fly. I can imagine the scene in the airport, at the X-ray station. "What do you mean ‘it’ has to go with the checked luggage? I’m not putting him in the hold; that’s my father!"

My dad was raised Roman Catholic, but he "gave it up" while in the army. All we had for him was a viewing, no religious ceremonies. His elder sister-in-law’s family wants to have a graveside service when we bury him, so I guess we’ll do that. They’re from Illinois and were a mite upset that he’d be buried with my mom’s family and not his. He also has siblings in Michigan and Florida. None of them could make it to Albuquerque, so we’ll see if they want to or can make it to Iowa.

There was a nice mix of his former employees, current co-volunteers, and neighbors. Plus, a neighbor had a wake of sorts at her house afterwards. One of my dad’s former employees said, "He was the best boss I ever had." I nearly lost it when I heard that. Even Boss and his wife and a coworker and her husband drove all the way from Las Cruces to Albuquerque to support me and to pay their respects. I did lose it then, when I saw them at the funeral home. The friend who accompanied me had a poor upbringing, with no male role models. He told me that my dad restored his faith in fatherhood. I lost it then, too.

The big one came at the end of the viewing, when I touched my father’s hand, told him I loved him, and said goodbye. I could barely croak the words. (I’m tearing up even typing this.) One of my brothers was next to me, probably intending to do the same, and he couldn’t manage it. When he heard me, he broke down completely, clutched me in a bear hug for over a minute (and this is something, for two guys who don’t hug), and cried harder than I did.

There is not a day that goes by that I haven’t thought about him. I always will. I’m thinking of posting his obituary and the saying from his memorial card on my blog. It seems a bit maudlin, though. Plus, an ephemeral tribute in cyberspace won’t begin to share with the world how truly special he was. Still, I’ll use that as a start to honor him. I know that some of you have met him, and I hope you remember him with at least a fraction of the love, pride, and respect I had for him. How can one distill a great man’s life into a column-inch or two? I learned in a high school English class that writing short is harder than writing long. His obituary was the hardest thing I ever wrote.

I’m riding on the edge of my "I won’t discuss religion" rule, but I have to say this. I firmly believe in souls. My father wasn’t in that casket; a body was. There is no worldly understanding of how cells and tissues and organs can be a person, not just a Homo sapiens sapiens. What makes someone work and love and laugh and cry and hug? Science doesn’t have an answer. Actually, I hope no one ever finds out; people won’t be special any more. I don’t know where his soul went. His body will be burned and buried, but his essence, what made him "Daddy", must be out there somewhere.

I think I want to be cremated, too, but it seems kind of pointless to bury me somewhere and not have anyone to visit. All I’d be is a stone in the ground with no one else left to remember me. I’m toying with the idea of scattering my cremains at N.M.S.U. (where I went to school and where I work), on Santa Catalina Island (where I had my favorite internship), and in Cherry Hill, N.J. (where I was born and raised). I need to start a will. It’s obvious that one of my brothers will get my comic book collection, but now I also have real estate. I’m not a kid any more.

My mom had me sit at my father’s place at the dining room table. My friend was told to sit in his La-Z-Boy. We both felt uncomfortable doing so. Life goes on.

My dad’s death pushed me into the final step of adulthood. I don’t want to grow up. Life goes on.